A Word, Please: Learning grammar through osmosis isn't always foolproof

We've all done it: You look at something you wrote, then stop and think: "It just doesn't look right."

When we write, the enormous volumes of printed text we see over our lifetimes become a mental reference for how words should be spelled and punctuated. It's remarkable how often this subconscious compass steers us in the right direction. Consciously, we may be pretty sure we're supposed to double up the Ts in the middle of the word "commitment." But the eye knows that "committment" doesn't look right.

Yet, impressive as this unconscious skill is, it's not 100% reliable. There are certain writing "rights" we've seen in print countless times, yet they aren't as likely to get right when we're the ones at the keyboard. Our reader brains never pass the information along to our writer brains.

This came to my attention recently in a conversation with two other professional wordsmiths. They were both surprised to learn that "till" with no apostrophe and two Ls is preferable to "'til" in publishing. That shocked me. Not only are both of my colleagues prolific readers, but they both work for a publication whose style guide specifies clearly that "till" with no apostrophe should be used instead of the contracted form.

They were surprised to learn that "till" is not only a synonym of "until" but it actually predates it. So anyone who uses the contraction "'til" is failing to take a lesson from his or her reading material.

Here's another fact that our reader brains fail to communicate to our writer brains: Semicolons are practically nonexistent in top news media outlets. As editors know, semicolons often do more harm than good. They can lead to long, clunky, hard-to-digest sentences.

Also, semicolons are seldom necessary. Any sentence with a semicolon in the middle can just as easily be two sentences.

Many writers don't notice this. Instead, they figure that they're supposed to squeeze in semicolons wherever possible, if for no reason other than to demonstrate that they know how to use semicolons.

Certain spellings also elude our writer brains. In all my years of editing, I've never seen a writer spell "forgo" correctly. Yes, there is a word that's spelled "forego," but that's not the one they usually want. The one with the E means to go before. The one without the E means to do without.

Ditto that for "judgment." No matter how many times we see this word in print, our instinct is still to put an E after the G.

You could read 1,000 New York Times articles and 1,000 books and never see a hyphen touch an LY adverb: a recently announced merger, a happily married couple, a quickly forgotten idea. The rules of hyphenation specifically exclude LY adverbs, mainly because an LY adverb's relationship to a word that follows is so clear that it doesn't need the help of a hyphen.

Yet in unedited writing, LY adverbs get hyphenated all the time.

But perhaps the most overlooked lesson of the printed page involves commas between adjectives. You'd never see in professionally edited writing something like "She wore a bright, green, silk scarf." Commas separate only "coordinate adjectives," which are adjectives that would make sense with the word "and" between them.

"Noncoordinate adjectives," which have different relationships to the noun, are not separated by commas. For example, in "a bright green dress," the word "bright" is really modifying the adjective "green" and not the noun "dress."

That's why they should usually not be separated by commas. And that's why, though we get a lot of passive grammar knowledge from reading, sometimes we should seek the active kind too.

June Casagrande is the author of "The Best Punctuation Book, Period." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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